How product managers can build trust and alignment on virtual teams
Today we are talking about making virtual product teams more effective.
Our guest is Anna Marie Clifton, Head of Product at Vowel. She is leading the effort to make virtual meetings more effective by turning them into searchable, sharable knowledge. Before Vowel, she held senior product management roles at Asana, Coinbase, and Yammer.
Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers
[1:57] How do you build trust among product team members on virtual teams?
Trust is at the foundation of everything. Trust builds velocity. Trust builds product. It’s hard to build trust in virtual environments.
When I had a distributed team at Coinbase, we were in a hybrid setting where some of the team was co-located and some of the team was not. That’s the hardest setting for building trust because there’s a local clique and remote participants. At Coinbase, we developed a mascot to give ourselves team culture. We chose the Count from Sesame Street because our team was working on trading, buying, and selling. We sent the Count stuffed animal to our colleagues who were not co-located with us as a symbol of our cohesion.
One of the most important ways for leaders to build trust is being vulnerable and admitting mistakes. I go out of my way to call out any time I make a mistake in front of everyone whom I work with. You can do that not just in the moment but also in reference to a past mistake. That really humanizes yourself and sets the tone that it’s okay to make mistakes—this is a safe space. One of the best ways to build trust is to share vulnerability. If I’m being vulnerable with you, you can definitely trust me, because you have something you can hold over me. I’m in a position to be trusted because you have power. It’s critical especially for leaders to be vocal and vulnerable about current and past mistakes and set the tone of trust.
For product managers joining a new team or organization, one of the best things to do to build a foundation of trust is to build early commitment. Say you’re going to do a thing and do that thing. Find things you are very confident you know how to do and that have a very short time window, say you will do them, and do them on time. Those actions give promissory notes that build trust, rapport, and expectation that you are a reliable person. When you move to a new organization, you start from a clean trust slate, and you have to really quickly build that balance sheet up. Giving people little commitments you can deliver on in the next 24 hours and doing that repeatedly in your first few weeks is one of the best ways to accelerate that.
[10:30] How do you keep virtual teams aligned on product goals and priorities?
Alignment is the most important aspect of team functioning, but maintaining alignment is challenging. Until you’re in an organization where there’s a lack of alignment, you don’t notice how completely frenetic it can be. If you move really quickly forward and you move really quickly backward, you’ve moved at a high speed but low velocity—you haven’t gone anywhere. One of the best ways you can improve velocity, especially as an organizational leader, is by focusing on alignment, not necessarily speed.
Everything is always trending toward less alignment. The default state is as time moves forward, people are becoming less aligned. Your job as a product leader is to continue to pull people back into the alignment you have created. It’s all about communication. The adage “people have finally heard something once you’re tired of saying it” is true.
At Vowel, we do an all-hands meeting every two weeks. Our product team will share a product update, and most product updates will include a high level reminder of product strategy. Every quarter we do a detailed all-hands meeting about the product strategy. What is our current product strategy? How, if at all, has it changed since the last quarter? If it stayed the same, you still have to say it again.
I strongly encourage good posts in Slack or Teams.
Communication with your teams in one-on-ones is important. One of my favorite ways to start a one-on-one conversation is with the question: “What’s the most important thing?” It’s a great question to pull your colleague out of the minutiae of tactics and into thinking about the most important thing for the company right now.
People as individuals and teams as groups of individuals have a certain capacity for change. They can only absorb so much change so quickly. The capacity for change is a budget you get to spend as a leader. Give people a lot of heads-up notice of when a change is coming. That gives them a lot of confidence and security to execute the change and prepare to shift to the next thing when it’s time. You don’t necessarily need to know what the next thing is going to be. You can just say, “I think this is going to be important for about six months. We’ll do the next thing next. We’ll figure out what the right next thing is then.” It takes a while for people to shift perspective. If they were going in one direction and they’ve put all of their mental energy into getting really good at that, when you ask them to shift, they keep accidentally doing the prior thing on accident. It’s hard to unlearn that foundation of where you’re headed. Giving people a really strong heads up on when they’re not going to be headed in that direction anymore can help them switch more quickly to the next thing.
At Vowel, we have demos every two weeks of what we have built. The engineer who is demoing the work talks about why it is important for the customer and what impact it’s supposed to have. This exercise means the engineers now have to know what the answer is to, “Why is this important?” This provides closer alignment between engineers and the product strategy and vision. The result is our engineering teams have become key collaborators in driving product ideas because they’re more deeply invested in where we’re going.
[19:17] What advice do you have for team members (not leaders) to help make virtual teams more effective?
The first thing is mindset. Take on the mindset that you have agency. The thing I love about culture is everything is contagious. And the thing I hate about culture is everything is contagious. As an individual, anything you start doing will spread to other people. If you want your team to be more invested in the product, start being more invested in the product.
In any meeting, ask, “What is the goal of this meeting? What is the goal of this project? What is the goal of this bug fix? etc.” This question can help keep people out of these nitty-gritty weeds and up at the level of what matters. No matter what role you’re in, asking, “What’s the goal here?” is always going to work. If you start asking that question a lot, pretty soon you’re going to get promoted to the level of people whose job it is to make sure that question is being answered.
I’m a huge fan of meeting agendas. Even for the most casual meetings, start the conversation with “Hey, what’s the agenda? What do we want to accomplish here?” This can help those long, awkward, rambly, never-ending conversations actually matter and not be so long and rambly.
In the virtual space, you often don’t have a hard end time for the meeting, so everyone can keep chatting. Get good at knowing what you’re discussing and close the conversation once you’ve discussed that. This can give everyone time back and bring more energy to the conversation.
When you end the conversation, be very clear on the next steps—who is doing what by when? It’s easy for thing to fall through the cracks with virtual teams. Be clear on the next steps you agreed upon, who is accountable for them, and when they will happen.
When you can, use a public channel to discuss anything for work. There are lots of uses for private DMs, but I find the default in virtual environments is to DM someone because you don’t want to bother people. That’s actually counterproductive to effective virtual teams because it means work can feel empty. People can feel like they’re working by themselves when there’s nothing really happening that they can see. If you see people are having real work conversations, even if you’re not in them, it can keep your energy up. Using public channels is important so you can pull someone else into the conversation when you need to and provide them the shared context from your previous conversation. It’s so challenging to find content that’s stuck in DMs. It’s much easier when it’s in public channels. Use threads and reply in thread so people aren’t pinged all the time.
It’s a little bit harder for team members to set Slack etiquette, but everything is contagious. If you start doing something right, and if you mention it to one or two of your friends, you can start a movement going.
When you’re writing messages on Slack, think about the number of people who are going to read it, and put in the effort to make it clear and understandable commensurate with the size of the audience. Think about how fast and easy it will be to understand.
For remote teams, change your calendar settings so guests are allowed to modify the event. Anyone can change the meeting time, which helps when you have team members in different time zones. No need to bicker about the meeting time. Just reschedule it.
Record your meetings. That allows you as an attendee to decide if you need to be in the meeting as a participant or if you can catch up on the recording or look at an AI summary and jump into any relevant moment. You can save yourself hours of meetings by not being in ones that don’t matter to you. Recording allows you to search for anything you have forgotten from a meeting.
Have your notes open during the meeting and accessible to everyone in the meeting. Write down your conclusions so you agree before you end the meeting.
[32:35] What is Vowel and how does it help virtual teams collaborate?
Vowel is a standalone video conference meeting solution. Instead of being just a video conference tool, it’s also everything before your call. You can collaborate on all your agendas before the call, and it’s a repository for the agendas and recording after the call. Immediately after the meeting, you get an AI summary that links to timestamps in the meeting. If you want to sign up for three months of Vowel for free, use code PRODUCT MASTERY.
Action Guide: Put the information Anna Marie shared into action now. Click here to download the Action Guide.
- Connect with Anna Marie on LinkedIn or Twitter
- Learn more about Vowel and use code PRODUCT MASTERY for three months free
- Read Anna Marie’s article on Slack Etiquette
“It takes 10 years to create an overnight success” – unknown
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